Since my first Judging / Tasting Exam score wasn’t what I wanted (71), I immediately signed up for another go at it. That was about a year ago so I have gotten my second scores back (87 – yeah!) (I took the exam in January and got my Scores in June -> 5 month turn around) and I have had some time to reflect on things so I thought I would share my experiences with those preparing for this exam.
I’ll start by reiterating that, even though it is not and really can’t be perfect, the Judging / Tasting exam is very well designed and run. There are two goals >> train judges to score similarly and to properly fill out a scoresheet with the obvious outcome of proper, fair results in a competition and entrants getting back excellent scoresheets so they can get the independent, blind feedback they need to improve their beers. Of course, in order to do these two things you have to have a very solid knowledge of the various different styles but also you have to be able to competently assess and describe your sensory perceptions of a beer using a common, clear lexicon. This is exactly what this exam tests. In essence, it is a mock-up of you judging at a competition and then comparing how you scored and wrote-up your beers compared to two national or higher ranked proctors. Could anyone come up with some viable tweeks to the grading system. Sure. But someone else could come up with a perfectly good argument for why to keep it the same. Is it possible that the proctors incorrectly scored or misperceived aspects of a beer. Of course. But if we need to get judges scoring in the same zone as each other, I can’t really think of a better way to do it. So, now having been ear deep in the exam for a couple of years I still feel very good about the process as a whole and I would recommend to anyone who is serious about improving their beer, improving their friends beers, improving their own beer drinking experience and giving back to the homebrewing community that putting in the time and effort on this exam is well worth it.
You can read my first experience here and I’m not going to completely rehash what I’ve already said but I will pass along advice that I hope will be helpful and at the bottom I’ll post my (redacted 🙂 ) exams so hopefully you can learn from my efforts and results.
Advice for Studying for BJCP Judging Exam (aka Tasting Exam):
1> Know the Styles Cold
For the Judging Exam there isn’t a lot of value in knowing the technical details around a beer style (OG, FG, IBUs etc…) since you couldn’t perceive if a beer was 1 Plato high or low anyway and you wouldn’t say – 35 IBUs – on your scoresheet. But what you should know cold for every style is what are at least two (see the template in 5> to see why two) primary descriptors for each section (Aroma, Appearance, Flavor, Mouthfeel and Overall Impression) as well as what flaws are acceptable and what are absolutely not acceptable. So if you are served a Saison you should know:
Aroma – fruity esters, peppery phenolics, noble/english hops
Appearance – pale to dark. big fluffy head. visible bubbles
Flavor – fruity esters, peppery phenolics, noble/english hops, very dry, moderate to high bitterness
Mouthfeel – very high carbonation
OI – fruity, peppery, moderately bitter, very dry, very effervescent
Of course it’s better to know every detail cold since you need that for the written exam anyway but you should know the above level of detail at a minimum and you really want to know the levels for those primary descriptors. For example, if you get served a beer with no fruity esters as a Saison that has to be mentioned and it has to be accounted for in your score.
Along with this, sit down and do a scoresheet for as many commercial examples of these styles as you can. Its hard to get a lot of them based on where you live but it will help immensely. It is critical to be able to tie what the words in the BJCP guide say to what it actually smells, tastes, looks and feels like. I picked 1-2 categories each week and went to my local bottle shops and got examples and over the course of a few months I knocked them all out. I also met with a local group of judges and did the same. Keep in mind a lot of these beers may be very old so don’t assume that all Milk Stouts taste like cardboard because the one Mackeson’s you had did but once you’ve had a few you should be able to pick up the signal through the noise.
2> Become One with the Flavor Wheel
It is really interesting to me how you can drink the same thing for years but not pick up on certain characteristics but then you map in your mind a flavor or an aroma and then you perceive things you never did before. I’m a big fan of the flavor wheel since it gives structure to the various different elements of beer, both good and bad, so when you are getting a certain quality it can help you narrow down to what that actually is.
3> Learn the Lexicon
And to take 2> one step further, working with the common lexicon allows you to be able to describe a quality using language that other beer judges and brewers will understand. On top of the descriptors as covered in the flavor wheel, it is key to have a solid set of level descriptors. It will not go well if you just label everything low, medium, high. I built a list of synonyms and practiced using them in scoresheets so that they just became a natural part of my descriptive language. for example, for low you might use soft, faint, gentle, muted or subdued instead. it allows you to more accurately describe what you are perceiving. To me, soft describes a gentle desirable quality whereas low may come across more negative.
4> Become the Grader
Read and become one with the grading guide. How often have you taken a test in your life and known exactly how you were going to be graded? If you don’t fully understand this guide you really are doing yourself a huge disservice.
5> Use a Repeatable Format
First off a huge Thank You to the proctor for my 2nd exam – Richard Lane. I can’t say enough good things about Richard and all the help he provided to myself and the other exam takers. He has a lot of good information on his website but I think the most helpful to me was his scoresheet template and example. His template gives you a way to systematically and repeatably fill out your scoresheets in the way that will be most positively scored by graders since it matches up with their scoring guidelines. This template IS PURE GOLD! I cannot recommend strongly enough that you fill out every scoresheet in this manner. For my first exam, I didn’t have this template and you can see that a lot of the points I lost were not because my perceptions were wrong but because I didn’t lay them out in the way they wanted. Of course, you still have to assess and describe the beer properly but this template will help eliminate losing points due to not meeting the graders “completeness” expectations. So your score will directly reflect how you did at scoring the beer and how accurate your perceptions were and not be negatively impacted due to incomplete or improperly formatted responses.
6> Don’t just say something, do something
If you mention any flaws in a beer, make sure you give at least one or two good ways to address that flaw. Also, when you give a flaw, don’t act as if you know something about the beer that you have no way of knowing. It is silly to say – “use more Mosaic hops” when you have no idea what type of hops were used. Stick with what you know for certain which is what you perceive and assume you know zilch about their process and ingredients.
First off, let me tell you about the beers that we received. Here is a visual breakdown:
1> Helles – It was an undoctored homebrew and a pretty good one!
2> Witbier – undoctored homebrew
3> Brown Porter – a blend of a bunch of different homebrews. this is the one beer i was really off on. I scored it a 30. there was a strong licorice character that i attributed to brown malt but was actually a weird phenolic. oops!
4> American IPA – blend of homebrew and lagunitas
5> Dunkel – commercial version from OMB (where we took the exam so I think it was pretty fresh 🙂
6> Weizenbock – undoctored hombebrew
I was within 7 for 5 of 6 and within 3 for 4 of 6. the one that got me was the Brown Porter and I picked up on the phenol, I just misjudged where it was coming from and that it was too much for style. So, all in all I’m very happy with my scoring and perception.
Here is my exam as submitted for grading:
And here is my Report to Participant (RTP):
So what are my takeaways? I feel really, really good about how I did on the exam the 2nd time and I think I scored well enough that I don’t need to take it ever again. I have not heard of anyone scoring higher than 90 (I’m sure it has happened) so I think if I need to make 90 for Master (not National yet so getting a bit ahead of myself) I’ll make up the difference on the Written.
I don’t think I would change anything with how I prepared. I think the above advice is exactly where I would spend my time getting prepared if I were to do it again. Understand how you will be graded and focus your attention there. Fill out lots of scoresheets but do it using the template until it becomes second nature and you don’t even need to reference it. Make sure you are intimately familiar with at least one commercial example for every style and preferably as many as you can get your hands on. Use the flavor wheel descriptors and a variety of level terms as you fill out score sheets so you are totally comfortable with all 360 degrees of the flavor wheel and a broad swath of level terms. If someone gives you a style, you should be able to rattle off the primary descriptors for aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression without hesitation. And as I mentioned in my first write-up, don’t think about the beer being doctored or not, homebrew or commercial or anything else. Judge what is in front of you. Don’t go flaw hunting. And after your first smell and sip I would write down the score that first comes to mind. I’m sure others do what I do. I come up with a score, I second guess and I start coming up with reasons to move it one way or another. And 90% of the time I should have stuck with my gut instinct.
I hope this write-up was helpful and Best of Luck!!!